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It's been uphill battle for Mucho Macho Man and his trainer

History has not been terribly kind to winners of the Louisiana Derby, at least not when the first Saturday in May is concerned.

A grand total of two who won Fair Grounds' signature Kentucky Derby prep race have gone on to take the roses, Black Gold in 1924 and Grindstone in 1996.

Add to that, no horse has won the Kentucky Derby off the six-week gap the Louisiana Derby currently presents since Needles in 1956, and one can see why the horse who captures Saturday's edition of the $1 million test will have some giant hurdles to overcome.

All of that is of little concern to trainer Kathy Ritvo, who conditions this year's 9-5 morning line favorite Mucho Macho Man. Both Ritvo and her promising charge are well-versed in defying conventional odds.

Three years ago, Ritvo was waiting for a heart transplant because of the effects of cardiomyopathy, not sure whether she would ever live a normal life again, much less work on the backstretch.

These days, after undergoing the transplant in November 2008, a healthy Ritvo looks like any other trainer of a leading Kentucky Derby contender — happy — with a large dose of perspective.

Mucho Macho Man has given Ritvo the biggest non-physical triumph of her career. The rangy bay son of Macho Uno enters the Louisiana Derby off his 11/2-length victory in the Grade II Risen Star Stakes at Fair Grounds on Feb. 19, when he defeated a deep field that included graded stakes winners Santiva and Rogue Romance.

Mucho Macho Man is a mid-June foal who won't biologically turn 3 years old until after the Belmont Stakes, and his development into one of the leading members of his class is something of a marvel.

So forgive Ritvo if — in the wake of what she and Mucho Macho Man have already accomplished — she doesn't get too caught up in the minutiae that might cause others stress.

"You know, I just try and take in everything and appreciate all the time I get to spend with him," Ritvo said of Mucho Macho Man. "I appreciate everything; I appreciate every day. And having a really nice horse like this is ... it's great."

Mucho Macho Man showed his potential last fall when he ran second behind To Honor and Serve in both the Nashua and Remsen stakes, but he began 2011 with a disappointing fourth-place effort in the Grade III Holy Bull Stakes.

Ritvo didn't like the worked-up horse she saw that day, and she decided to take the blinkers off Mucho Macho Man for the Risen Star. As a result, the 17-hand colt was much more settled as he stalked the pace setter and drew off handily in the stretch.

"It did make a big difference because it got him to relax a whole lot more," Ritvo said. "Before, he was kind of a baby. He's much more mature now and can handle it."

Trainer Neil Howard has a two-pronged attack lined up to try to derail Mucho Macho Man.

Howard will send out Machen — the 7-2 morning-line second choice — and Wilkinson, as part of the 13-horse field entered for the 11⁄8-mile Louisiana Derby.

Wilkinson has won two of three starts at Fair Grounds, including the Grade III LeComte Stakes on Jan. 22, but he hasn't raced since that victory.

Machen won his first two starts by a combined 101/2 lengths, but he was fourth behind Mucho Macho Man in the Risen Star.

"He hadn't really been battle-tested until that race, so I think he got the benefit of two or three races worth of experience all wrapped up into one," Howard said of Machen's Risen Star outing. "I'm pleased with both of them and the way they are coming up to the (Louisiana Derby)."

Machen and Wilkinson are among the many horses in the field who appear to like to come off the pace, which could give Mucho Macho Man an easy trip on the front end.

"If he's in front, that's fine but, wherever he is, he'll just make one run again," Ritvo said.

While Saturday offers Mucho Macho Man and company a chance to solidify where they belong on the Derby trail, Sunday's Grade III, $800,000 Sunland Derby in New Mexico offers fans a first chance to see Astrology run this season.

The Steve Asmussen-trained colt captured the Grade III Iroquois Stakes at Churchill Downs in October, but he hasn't started since running second in the Grade II Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes because of a minor illness earlier in the year.

Asmussen admitted that 11⁄8 miles was an ambitious return, but he needed to get Astrology a race if he hoped to make it to the Derby.

"It's a little later than we originally planned on bringing him back, but I think there's a tremendous amount at stake considering the individual he is," Asmussen said.